Report: NAINConnect 2013 in Toronto
NAINConnect 2013 in Toronto last month was 25 or 30 degrees (F.) cooler than recent NAIN (North American Interfaith Network) gatherings. Phoenix and Atlanta in ’11 and ’12 were boilermakers. This summer Toronto was delicious by day, staying warm enough each night for balmy shirt-sleeve comfort as we wandered back to our rooms.
The real wonder wasn’t the weather, though, or even Toronto’s incredible diversity, which provided a dramatic backdrop for a no-nonsense program. Last year in Atlanta, NAIN looked harder at race and social justice than ever before. People were moved, informed, and inspired to come to Toronto this year. How to follow that? Canadian planners had to have wondered.
Toronto Area Interfaith Council, this year’s host, shifted the focus from race to diversity but held the ethical, moral, cultural issues to the same fire. It felt like Atlanta 2.
In the mouth of a politician or pundit, “In Our Diversity is Our Strength” may sound like a careless cliché, a fuzzy-wuzzy cover-up of injustice to the poor, particularly towards the indigenous communities in North America which have suffered terribly at the hands of the dominant culture.
NAIN Toronto, though, took the theme and its difficulties with great seriousness. The opening plenary featured three arresting voices, including Uzma Shakir, a Muslim of South Asian origin who serves as the City of Toronto’s director of “Equity, Diversity & Human Rights Division.”
“Now I’m a bureaucrat?!” she exclaimed with astonished disbelief. Her scathing review of how most North Americans treat minorities and immigrants came with a fierce sense of humor that had us roaring with laughter, then silenced with her stinging insights.
She was followed by Karen Mock, nationally known human rights consultant, psychologist, and educator, and Shahid Akhtar, founder of Conciliators Without Borders Services and the Canadian Association of Jews and Muslims. By the end of the morning, it was clear that Canada is taking diversity, ethics, and the caring about our social fabric more seriously than the United States in a number of ways.
The concluding plenary featured three indigenous voices – Dawn Maracle, of the Mohawk Nation, Lori Ransom, an Algonqin of the Pikwakanagan First Nation, and Andrew Wesley, a Cree from northern Ontario. Native American leaders, each came with impressive ‘track records’ in pursuing ‘diversity.’ They shared their stories and research, their relationship to forgiveness after unspeakable abuse, and the good that has emerged in the midst of a tragic history. Canada is a leader in a global movement (17 nations so far) to utilize Truth and Reconciliation Commissions. Keynoter Wesley, on the Canada’s Commission, spoke of a lifetime devoted to experiencing, understanding, and teaching forgiveness.
Only one keynoter was given a whole hour – Sister Sue Mosteller, who joined L’Arche Daybreak in 1972, sharing her daily life with people with disabilities on a permanent basis. She succeeded founder Jean Vanier as the international coordinator of L’Arche in 1976. The power and humility of her ministry, cutting through every imaginable way to make someone else ‘the other,’ held us rapt.
The only problem with the 22 workshops (twice as many were proposed) was that one could only attend three. They ran the gamut… animating the Golden Rule, interfaith in prison, the divine feminine & divine masculine, using values as a bridge between humanists/atheists and religious folk, ministry to LGBTQ students at the University of Toronto, best practices for youth engagement, and many more. General report was good as people flowed past the fruit, cookie, and coffee stations between sessions.
Beyond the strong core program, NAIN was robust in new ways this year. Registration maxed out at 150 – but with volunteers and those who snuck in late, some 200 participants created and enjoyed this 25th anniversary of NAIN. Former chairpersons Sam Muyskens, Peter Laurence, Don Mayne, Kay Lindahl, Mike Goggin, and Bettina Gray were in attendance and honored, with greetings sent from the other two who have led NAIN since its 1988 formation, Chuck White and Elizabeth Esperson. Gail Allan, who chaired Toronto’s Host Committee this year, was toasted and thanked.
A record third of all registrants were young adults. They are well represented on NAIN’s board, had their own late-night events, and presented at a number of the workshops. One of the four plenary sessions was a forum from the eight who received this year’s young adult scholarships. They reflected the same excitement and growing interfaith engagement we’ve heard in recent years from their peers.
Several dozen faith leaders from different traditions led prayer sessions throughout the event in the extraordinary Multifaith Centre on the University of Toronto’s large campus, a perfect site for this conference. One afternoon was spent on field trips, by bus or on foot.
An unprecedented surprise was the participation of Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid, chairman of the Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions. He brought greetings from Chicago, thanks for those who have supported the Parliament in difficult times, and a spirit of collaboration in the interfaith work we share.
Equally important, Gabriela Franco came from Guadalajara, Mexico, where she is a leading interfaith activist. She offered a workshop about last year’s five-day interfaith event that drew 2,000. For years NAIN has hoped for the day when Mexicans started participating, and Gabriela opened the door. “What had the greatest impact on me was to experience NAIN as a great loving family. They have collaborated and built solid relationships aimed at advancing interreligious dialogue. I was deeply touched by that great sensitivity and dedication to service.”
A brewing vitality is evident on NAIN’s board. Directors all attended this year. Some years this board hasn’t known where we would gather ‘next year’ and had to depend on miracle invitations that finally came through. This year six cities have indicated their interest in hosting a Connect. The word is getting out.
Less dramatic but as important – bylaw reforms, years in the making, were finally formalized. Communication systems are being improved. Young adult virtual programming is growing.
NAIN is a grassroots network of interfaith activists and professionals. Board members assume “staff” responsibilities, half the budget goes to scholarships, and there is always a little money in the bank. Very little in the eyes of the world, but enough to keep financial crises in abeyance, a rare achievement these days. And enough each year to bring together North American grassroots interfaith leaders deeply committed to peace and harmony in the 21st century.
Next year NAIN goes to Detroit, Michigan, August 10-13.